Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
One of the peculiar comforts of modern living is that no matter where you look things are suitably messed up that there is work to be done. While this lulls many into a sense of “why bother” it can drive others quite mad, and more often than not makes it so that every victory conjures up only a moment’s calm. What makes all of this the more difficult is the attempt to arrange all of the issues and setbacks into some hierarchy of “what is the most problematic thing facing us at this moment?” After all, it’s difficult enough to stay properly informed of current craziness in one or two areas, trying to keep track of it on a societal scale is asking for a migraine.
Thus NYC librarians scarcely had a moment to celebrate surviving another year of the budget dance before they were reminded that budget aside…many things were still quite out of place, and that is not just a result of patrons sloppily reshelving books. Problems other than just the fact that a year without deeper cuts does not undo the hacking and slashing that has taken place over the last several years. Indeed, it was only a week or so after being spared from the budget ax-man’s blade that NYC librarians saw the full return of what is shaping up to be a rather emblematic struggle over the future of NYC libraries. This is, of course, the tale of what shall befall the historic Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Libraries – the one with the lions out front and the name of a banker chiseled into its façade.
In a bid to “modernize,” and to scrounge up some money by selling off other locations, the plan has been to rip out the seven floors of stacks under the Rose Reading room and transform all of that area into a fancy new library space. At current the stacks are closed – as in off limits to library patrons – and the task of retrieving books is a responsibility of the library staff. The renovation would radically alter this space, and open a new circulating collection where the stacks had once been; granted, part of the plan is to close and sell-off the Mid-Manhattan branch. As for the books currently located in the seven floors of stacks? Some will be stored in the subterranean storage beneath Bryant Park whilst the majority will be held in off site storage.
The changes – and the architectural plans – have caused no lack of concern: ranging from flabbergasted scholars who are angered that they will have to request books several days in advance, to library patrons who see in the closure of the Mid-Manhattan library (and the Science, Industry, and Business Library [SIBL]) a diminishment in library service, to fiscally worried folk who see a project that is going to cost far more than predicted. As for librarians…who says they were even consulted about these plans? Besides, it was more or less agreed that there was little that could be done, NYPL had gone ahead with emptying the stacks even as the debate raged and most library activists were focused on the budget scissors not the demolition hammer.
And now a lawsuit has been filed (two lawsuits actually) aiming to halt the construction from going forward. As was reported by Meredith Schwartz, in Library Journal (in her article titled “Second Suit Filed to Halt NYPL Central Renovation”):
“The suit claims that a 1978 agreement between the library and the city and state of New York bars any structural alteration of the central branch of the library absent prior consent from the state…The suit also seeks an injunction directing the library to restore the books already removed,”
Furthermore the lawsuit, and the issue, seems to have risen in visibility as it may play a part in the upcoming NYC mayoral elections as Bill De Blasio (Pulbic Advocate for the City of New York) has sided with those opposing the renovation plans. In a speech on the library steps and in a letter to Mayor Bloomberg (which is clearly aimed more at those who will vote for the next Mayor than at the current Mayor) De Blasio railed against the plans, urging that all further work be halted until the renovation plans can be reassessed. As De Blasio put it in his letter to the Mayor:
“Over the past 12 years, these institutions have faced budget cuts and public divestment, struggled to meet operating costs, forced to reduce hours and services, and suffered from hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance on aging air conditioners, boilers, computers and roofs. But these fiscal challenges are not a rationale to engage in drastic measures – if anything, they underscore the need for prudence, frugality and caution.”
It might have sounded better had De Blasio invoked “Patience and Fortitude” (the names of the lions outside the library) but “prudence, frugality, and caution” still has a certain appeal to it. It certainly remains to be seen how this shall play out, though De Blasio’s actions may make NYC’s libraries an issue in the upcoming mayoral election. Granted there are some serious library puns that can be made at this juncture: primarily if all of the books are returned, what kind of late fees will it invoke? The fact is that those stacks and much of SIBL have already been emptied and those books have already been shipped off site, these were not cheap undertakings and to reverse them will be costly.
The battle over the fate of the 5th avenue library has the potential to become as iconic a struggle for the future of libraries as the building is already an icon of libraries. Yet the question here remains: what are we struggling for? Is it to ensure that scholars have speedy access to obscure books? Is it to keep the maximum number of libraries open the maximum number of hours to better serve communities? Is it to save the city money? Is it to focus attention on a historic – and tourist friendly – institution whilst less well-known library branches crumble? In other words, are we fighting to preserve a library or libraries?
It is true that De Blasio mentioned other libraries in his letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the group behind the new lawsuit (Citizens Defending Libraries) seems focused on the larger library system, but as imperiled as the 42nd street library may be it fares far better than many of the library branches scattered around the city. Thus, while this library may be a rallying cry it is more important to rally around the idea of libraries than any one particular library (at least in areas where there are multiple libraries). The iconic problem plays in both directions, while it is a rallying cry for activists it is also a dreamy goal for library trustees and the library president Anthony Marx – who want to point to the 42nd street library as the library of the future built within the marble body of the past.
Saying that the books should be returned to the stacks is a worthy goal, but to say that the books should be returned should also mean that budgets be restored so that new books can fill the shelves of all of the libraries. Saying that the demolition should be blocked is a worthy goal, but this should also mean that the ongoing cuts and threatened cuts (“Demolition by neglect”) must not only be blocked, but reversed. And saying that this iconic library is important to the community must also be a ringing statement that ever library is important to its community.
The renovation plans to the historic 42nd street library may represent a grave injustice, but focusing on it as a structure instead of it as a symbol of libraries everywhere is to commit a graver injustice.